Reviews, profiles and news about art in Chicago

In Profile: Milwaukee Art Museum Renovation

Galleries & Museums, Milwaukee No Comments »
Milwaukee Art Museum, East Wing Addition.

Milwaukee Art Museum, East Wing Addition, 2015

Needing to address damaging leaks from a second-floor sculpture garden, the Milwaukee Art Museum decided to reconfigure its entire permanent display. Read the rest of this entry »

Art Break: Debriefing Milwaukee’s MarKEt/Forward Symposium

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Niki Johnson and Claudia Arzeno deliver “Unpacking Curation - Connecting Community and Narrative through Art”

Niki Johnson and Claudia Arzeno deliver “Unpacking Curation – Connecting Community and Narrative through Art”

On March 27, I found myself in Milwaukee at the Pfister Hotel for “MarKEt/Forward,” a series of seven lectures by local community organizers and arts professionals. The programing was produced by Niki Johnson, an artist who created work within the hotel for a year as a part of the Pfister Artist-in-Residence program. Attracted by its proximity to Chicago and the possibilities that the discussions therein would bear upon specific issues in the arts faced by midwestern cities like ours, I’d hoped for more than confirmation from the day’s speakers that “a healthy art practice starts with a strong community.” The burgeoning non-profit MarKEt (MKE capitalized as a gesture to Milwaukee)—purveyor of events, art walks and symposia—organized the program aimed at “new opportunities, education and professional development for the self-made artist.” Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Of Heaven and Earth: 500 Years of Italian Painting from Glasgow Museums/Milwaukee Art Museum

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Carlo Dolci. "Salome with the Head of St. John the Baptist," 1665–1970

Carlo Dolci. “Salome with the Head of St. John the Baptist,” 1665–1970

These forty paintings may not be the best way to exemplify 500 years of Italian painting. They have the stylistic elements but usually not the powerful emotive achievements of that great tradition. There’s only one piece, and a rather decrepit one, done before 1480, so the devotional intensity of the Italian variety of Byzantine icon is hardly evident. Also absent is the bold excitement of the Caravaggisti who are represented here by Antiveduto Gramatica, one of Caravaggio’s teachers who later decided to imitate his famous student. He came up short, just as, in the same gallery, the eighteen-year-old Titian could not yet achieve his later glories. “Christ and the Adulteress” feels like nothing more than a conglomeration of figure and drapery studies. One figure has even been lopped off and reframed over the intervening centuries. Here, it hangs beside the original, and yes, it probably looks better that way. But it’s fascinating to see a powerful mind beginning to assemble the visual elements that Titian will eventually master, just as it’s fascinating to see Carlo Dolci’s life-size depiction of Salome hanging beside an example of his work done fifty years earlier. Dedicated to painting that, in his words, “would inspire the fruits of Christian piety,” Dolci is usually too saccharine for anyone but the faithful. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Treasures of Kenwood House/Milwaukee Art Museum

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Rembrandt van Rijn, “Self Portrait with Two Circles,” c. 1665


The Kenwood House collection was assembled mostly in the four years following 1887 to help the mega-rich Irish beer dynast Edward Guinness eventually qualify as the first Earl of Iveagh. Built strictly by his Bond Street art dealer (whose clientele also included J. Pierpont Morgan and Henry Clay Frick), Guinness’ collection reflects a taste for the small, domestic and sentimental, with an emphasis on depictions of elegant young women, children and hunting dogs. There are many portraits from the eighteenth-century golden age of English portraiture, several of which whose subjects’ faces seem to have been cut and pasted into a serviceably upscale background. At bottom, there are a few painfully mediocre Bouchers and a faux Rubens. Read the rest of this entry »

Eye Exam: Fighting a Fire

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The artist hub in Riverwest, Milwaukee

By Pedro Velez

Immediacy is to art criticism what combustion is to fire, and in the era of the twenty-four-hour online news cycle, a spark of information can trigger a wildfire of overwhelming emotion. This happened to me recently on Tuesday, July 17, when a fire ravaged one of the most important art hubs in the country: the Riverwest building on 631 East Center Street in Milwaukee.

For a decade, Riverwest was a safe haven for the city’s young avant-garde and a meeting place for filmmakers, musicians, poets and bohemians. At the time of the fire, eight artists lived there while another eleven rented studios, including Sara Caron, a former student of mine, who is a talented artist and director of Small Space Gallery. The building was also home to several galleries that had close commercial ties to Chicago. Among them were Club Nutz, CENTER, American Fantasy Classics, Plum House and Nomadic, many of them artist-run. Its most famous habitant was internationally known, The Green Gallery West, which still has a second location on the other side of town, but their storage space is gone and so is much of the work by an all-star roster, including Michelle Grabner, José Lerma, Spencer Sweeney, Santiago Cucullu, Nicholas Frank, Scott Reeder, Tyson Reeder and others. According to John Riepenhoff, artist and co-owner of The Green Gallery, Lerma’s paintings are safe though some of the Reeders have been lost to water damage and smoke. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Accidental Genius/Milwaukee Art Museum

Drawings, Milwaukee, Outsider Art, Painting No Comments »

Sylvia Levine, "Cornish Landscape with Donkeys," 1987. Photo: Larry Sanders


Featured art collector Anthony Petullo began acquiring works at the Milwaukee Art Museum’s annual “Lakefront Festival of Arts,” which includes contemporary arts and crafts. Now, thirty years later, he has divided the pieces among his children and the museum, gifting 300 works with an indicated special focus on outsider and self-taught artists. However, some of the exhibition’s best work comes from the trained artists within his collection.

Petullo seems to have taken some chances with several European as well as American artists who aren’t well known. Beside iconic names like Henry Darger and Minnie Evans hangs work by Sylvia Levine, whose work can be purchased on the internet for under 500 dollars. Levine wasn’t completely self-taught; she took art classes that probably helped her develop the strong quality of her reclining nudes in an early twentieth-century figurative style. David Pearce is also far from famous, though his sparse, lonely village-scapes show that he is adept at presenting a dreamy and beautiful world. His gallery markets him as self-taught, but his own website indicates that he studied at the Epsom, Kent and Chelsea schools of art. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: H.D. Tylle/Grohmann Museum

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German painter H.D. Tylle proclaimed, “I am attempting to reach two levels: people who are involved in art but don’t know about working circumstances, and people working in factories who are normally not involved in art.” Tylle gets commissioned by industrialists, like Eckhart Grohmann, who know something about both, and it’s a tribute to both the artist and his patrons that his work is far greater than the industrial photography or illustration often found in trade magazines. He excels both in small, quick studies done on the factory floor and in heroic-sized visions, completed back at the studio. Remarkably enough, they’re neither heroic nor romantic, like the historic twentieth and nineteenth-century factory paintings in the “Man at Work” collection, on display at the Grohmann Museum. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Emperor’s Private Paradise/Milwaukee Art Museum

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The Qianlong Emperor (1711-1799) was a fanatic patron of the arts who is quite familiar to lovers of Chinese painting. He stamped his big red seal on many of the 10,000 paintings that he collected, not just once, but each time he unrolled them. He is also known to Chicagoans thanks to the 2004 exhibition at the Field Museum, “Splendors of China’s Forbidden City.” Recently, the World Monuments Fund has focused attention on the Juanqinzhai, a two-acre compound of gardens and pavilions in the Forbidden City that the emperor commissioned at the age of sixty to serve as a retreat in his declining years. This year, many of the furnishings from those pavilions are touring the United States.

The imitation rootwood furniture is perhaps the most memorable. Displaying a passion for faux-rusticity, also shared by the contemporary French royal court, these  outrageously convoluted objects miraculously reflect both organic process and elegant human design, as well as the Buddhist ideal of a simple, quiet life. Read the rest of this entry »

Eye Exam: A Man Among Mankind

Galleries & Museums, Milwaukee No Comments »
Max Gaisser (1857-1922), "The Notary Public"

Max Gaisser (1857-1922), "The Notary Public"

By Chris Miller

Five hundred years ago, a visionary (and successful) businessman such as Eckhart Grohmann might have built a monastery, chapel or temple to enshrine his legacy—and in a way that’s exactly what he did two years ago on the campus of the Milwaukee School of Engineering. Recycling a four-story office building, he added a triumphant tower at the corner, embellished it with mosaics for the floor, murals for the encircling walls, and stained-glass windows for the ceiling of his regal, circular office that sits on top like the captain’s bridge on a ship.

The rest of building, all three floors of it, was filled with 700 artworks that celebrate the passion of his lifetime: good, old-fashioned hard work (especially in factories, like the kind he used to own as former chairman and president of Milwaukee’s Aluminum Casting & Engineering Co. ). Wow! A museum about working people—there’s nothing else like it, Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Jan Lievens/Milwaukee Art Museum

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Jan Lievens, "Portrait of Rembrandt," 1628

Jan Lievens, "Portrait of Rembrandt," 1628


Why is Rembrandt Van Rijn (1606-1669) so important in art history–while his phenomenally talented contemporary, Jan Lievens (1607-1674), is usually just a footnote? Back in their day, they both got the big commissions, made lots of money, and for a period beginning in 1626, even shared a studio. This retrospective takes you all the way back to the beginnings of Jan Lievens’ career, which, remarkably enough, began at age fourteen, and then lets you watch his work build in power and ability over the next ten years, until, remarkably enough, it seems to lose momentum. (Although he still got plenty of work.) What happened?  Sometimes, both Lievens and Rembrandt were commissioned for paintings on the same theme, but it’s almost too painful to make the comparison. Lievens could just never compose a multi-figure baroque painting, even if he had become a master of evocative portraits, still-life and drawing. And he just wasn’t suited for the dark, tragic temper of mid-seventeenth-century Europe. He should have been born into the earlier, lighthearted, more hedonistic and buoyant generation of Frans Hals. But still, those paintings that, incredibly enough, he made in his early twenties, are masterpieces, and worth the trip up Interstate 94 to see them gathered together for a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition. (Chris Miller)

Through April 26 at the Milwaukee Art Museum, 700 North Art Museum Drive,
Milwaukee, Wisconsin, (414)224-3200.